Playing It Straight: Art and Humor in the Gilded Age offers a stunning new look at late-nineteenth-century American art, and demonstrates the profound role humor played in determining the course of culture in the Gilded Age. By showing how complex humorous strategies such as deadpan and burlesque operate in a range of media—from painting and sculpture to chromolithography and architectural schemes—Greenhill examines how ambitious artists like Winslow Homer and Augustus Saint-Gaudens rethought the place of humor in their work and devised strategies to both conform to and slyly undermine developing senses of “serious” culture. Exhibiting an awareness of the emerging requirements of serious art but maintaining an investment in humor, they played it straight.
Chapter 1. Winslow Homer’s Visual Deadpan
Chapter 2. Laughing with J.G. Brown, E.W. Perry, and Thomas Nast
Chapter 3. William Holbrook Beard Burlesques the Monster Museum
Chapter 4. Cosmopolitan Satire in Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Henry James
Chapter 5. Exchanging Jokes with John Haberle
List of Illustrations
Jennifer Greenhill is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her publications have appeared in Elective Affinities, Art History, and American Art. She has received research grants for Playing It Straight from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Luce Foundation, the Wyeth Foundation, the Smithsonian, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
"Playing It Straight deftly examines the often subtle and always complex role of humor in the making, exhibition, and patronage of art. In addition to offering a much-needed lesson in the various forms of nineteenth-century humor, Greenhill looks beyond the surface of art to yield new insights and meanings regarding canonical artists and their chosen media. This book sheds light not only on the artists and artworks analyzed, but on the historical period as a whole.”—Peter John Brownlee, Associate Curator, Terra Foundation for American Art
Playing it Straight provides the first comprehensive analysis of visual humor in late nineteenth-century America. Greenhill's intensive research and brilliant, intricate analyses span several disciplines, tracing the evolution of American art's 'sense of humor' from one of conspicuous comic performance to an aesthetic of the deadpan. This prism of the 'deadpan' opens the field to whole new districts of understanding, providing stunning new readings of well-known works while also revealing the pivotal role that previously obscure projects played in American cultural history.”—Jennifer L. Roberts, Professor of History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University
Winslow Homer's Visual Deadpan
His words were often open to an ironical interpretation, and one could not always make sure whether he was speaking seriously or, as the pithy slang phrase has it, "through his hat."
William Howe Downes, The Life and Works of Winslow Homer, 1911
Winslow Homer's "sense of the dramatic," his feeling for grave and often tragic situations, has made him a titanic figure in the history of American painting. His work, which, from the 1890s on, revolves around the themes of man versus nature and life versus death, has inspired some of the most nuanced argumentation on nineteenth-century American painting. In Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in the Gilded Age (1996), for example, Sarah Burns investigates how Homer's paintings of men at sea spoke to American businessmen riding the perilous wave of an unpredictable stock market and purchasing Homer's paintings as heroic testaments to their own manly struggles. Elizabeth Johns, in her biography Winslow Homer: The Nature of Observation (2002), accounts for the grave scenarios of Homer's imagery by turning the focus from the patrons to the artist himself. She sees Homer's artistic production as a form of spiritual self-reflection. He was an "observer" in a period when "observation meant using God's gifts of mind in the most reverent way," that is, "to study and draw conclusions about a world in ongoing creation."
This chapter moves in another direction. Taking a cue from two of Homer's earlier biographers, William Howe Downes and Philip C. Beam, I reconsider the central importance of the "gag" to Homer's dramatic sensibility. If Homer was engaged in a spiritual quest, if his art spoke to embattled Gilded Age manhood, how did he arrive at a painterly idiom that encapsulated such heady concerns? He cultivated a reputation for seriousness only after attempting to bring the gags of his illustrated work to oil painting, a medium he first explored in the early 1860s, during the American Civil War. To stress this should not diminish his stature but rather add nuance to our understanding of his complex art. For Homer during these years created an entrée to the New York art world by way of visual deadpan, which resonated with the methods of the period's controversial platform comedians and answered the critics' call for a "higher sort of humor," different from the antebellum comic mode that one critic derisively dubbed the "funny school of the fifties."
If much of that pre-Civil War work can be described as "semantic prattle," an art that signposts and almost compulsively restates to convey its meaning, Homer's paintings offer no easy punch lines. In Homer the joke is "told gravely," to borrow a phrase Mark Twain uses in explaining the mechanics of verbal deadpan. Indeed, Homer's paintings withhold the conspiratorial wink and nudge, framing jokes in understated, even ambiguous terms.
The ironic and subversive qualities of Homer's works are most perceptible in the 1860s, during the war, which many commentators considered a "ludicrous" and "grotesque" spectacle. Nathaniel Hawthorne asked in 1863 whether the war, as a play "too long drawn out," could be classed as "tragedy or comedy." People at the time paired the "comical and the coffinly" or spoke of levity and gravity, oppositions that apply to the structural dynamics of Homer's camp scenes (Plate 1). Often these works incorporate an almost imperceptible light note at odds with the dominant heavy tone of the images. Scholars generally argue that these works picture mundane and unremarkable moments in a soldier's experience-the dark truth behind the idealist vision of battlefield valor. But how does levity fit into the construction of this mundane view? Homer explores the uneasy relationship between levity and gravity to meditate on the experience of war and the principles both of humor and of painting itself. If the hilarity of jokes is fleeting and humor difficult, if not impossible, to translate once its context vanishes-William Dean Howells, for example, criticized the humor of the antebellum period as "terrible stuff"-Homer admits that painting is powerless to record the fleeting, building that very condition into his imagery. Acknowledging that painting is powerless to record the fleeting, Homer makes that a virtue of painting's achievement as an investigative, rather than a reportorial or taxonomic, medium. If, by the war's end, Homer seems to expunge levity from his art, the early works are driven by an exploration of its potential to serve and inform ambitious painting.
Lincoln explained that "if [he] did not laugh [he] should die" from the strain of the war, but members of his cabinet were reportedly disgusted by his "inappropriate levity." On one occasion, before presenting a draft of his Emancipation Proclamation, he read to them from the writings of the humorist Artemus Ward (the pseudonym of Charles Farrar Browne). The president's secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, later commented on the incident: "Not a member of the Cabinet smiled; as for myself, I was angry, and looked to see what the President meant. It seemed to me like buffoonery." The appalled Stanton considered "rising to leave the meeting abruptly." This phrase, "rising to leave," evokes the low position of levity, which serious leaders were expected to rise above. Although the comic periodical Yankee Notions rather affectionately tagged Lincoln the "Prince of Jokers, and Fun Maker General to the Universal Yankee Nation," the popular press criticized him relentlessly for relying on humor during the war. An anecdote from Yankee Notions entitled "Honest Abe's Hilarity" presents Lincoln's secretary of the treasury, Salmon P. Chase, as similarly annoyed by the president's levity, thinking it "subtracted from the Presidential dignity." One popular cartoon put Lincoln on a battlefield calling for a funny story among the dead. Another pictured him exclaiming, "This don't remind me of any joke!!" as he scrambles to outrun the severed and stereotyped head of a slave that Columbia prepares to launch in his direction. If the president's levity seemed self-indulgent in the context of war, these cartoons may have seemed appropriate because they interweave the "comical and coffinly": they engage in satirical critique, not levity for its own sake.
That distinction informed "The Humorous in Art," a piece by the critic Clarence Cook that appeared in the New Path in February 1864. Although Cook was just then coming to notice as one of the most outspoken and unforgiving critics in New York, he had already made an impact. George William Curtis, who preceded Cook at the New-York Daily Tribune, reviewing exhibitions for the paper in the early 1850s, praised Cook's "conviction," which confirmed for him the vitality of art criticism in the United States. "If art is worth talking about at all," Cook wrote in 1855, "it is worth talking about in a vigorous manner, and in plain terms." Many artists and art world figures would suffer the sting of Cook's sharp tongue over the course of his long career; in "The Humorous in Art," his targets were John George Brown and William Holbrook Beard.
Cook was troubled by the popularity of paintings like Brown's First Cigar and Beard's Jealous Rabbits, recently exhibited in New York, which he found indulgent, morally corrupt and "coarse." Instead of arousing "pity for the friendless and oppressed" or ridiculing "the foibles and follies of the world," like William Hogarth, these artists appealed to humanity's baser instincts. Both works seem to have been lost, but Brown's First Cigar exists in a print made after the original painting in 1870 (Fig. 1). In it, a boy, having tasted his first cigar, seems on the verge of vomiting. He stares imploringly in the viewer's direction through the smoke one boy blows in his face, while another boy laughs. Cook argued that this imagery encouraged the viewer to be amused at suffering. And Beard's work was even worse, reveling in the antics of debauched animals. (Jealous Rabbits apparently showed a rabbit adulterer caught in the act.)
The Harvard-educated Cook conceded that the two paintings represented different strains of humor, but he saw them as equally "dangerous" to public taste, especially since so many people seemed to find them "funny." Indeed, a review of Brown's painting when it was shown at the Maryland State Fair in Baltimore, in April 1864, called the work a "gem," a picture "full of life, fun, wickedness, and, in a word-boy." Lincoln reportedly loved it as well when he visited this fair, mounted to raise funds for the Union effort. "When President Lincoln saw it the other night, his humorous spirit caught the infection in a moment, and enjoyed it greatly." Whether apocryphal or not, this account situates Lincoln's sense of humor at a distance from Cook, whose elitist propriety led him to call the humorous paintings of Brown and Beard "an insult to refined and cultivated people"-those who presumably expected more from their art than jocular entertainment. Writing as one of the "defenders of the pure and exalted in art," Cook conceded that humor was "legitimate in what is called genre painting," but he maintained that these paintings were not worthy of that name: "We deny that either of these pictures is 'humorous.'"
Earlier in the nineteenth century the New York painter William Sidney Mount produced humorous genre painting that made him, according to an essay published in the American Whig Review in 1851, "the comic painter of the country." Although Mount's works were largely rustic scenes heavily invested in visual interpretations of period slang, his humor is more refined than that of either Brown or Beard. Instead of soliciting a belly laugh, Mount required viewers to engage in a more intellectual form of play, reading in his naturalistic details a double meaning. Mount's Cider Making, for example, presents an elaborate allegory of William Henry Harrison's presidential campaign of 1840 (Fig. 2). A work dense with political references, it seems to translate into paint the verbosity of the early nineteenth-century political cartoon. Mount, or one of his friends, went so far as to publish a long narrative key to Cider Making to guide viewers interpreting the work and ensure that they understood how it put naturalism to the service of satire, that those hogs lounging at far right were Democrats sleeping, as Elizabeth Johns has written, "through the Whigs' successes." That some viewers missed Mount's satirical edge-that his naturalism could conceal or distract from political content-may have been one reason for his works' broad appeal. It was seen as "sweet" and "fine-tempered," with "no bitterness, no moral obliquity or personal deformity." A decade later Cook worried that those qualities in humorous painting had been lost as an art of bold impropriety replaced an art of nuance.
Cook's censure of Brown's and Beard's ostensibly depraved imagery echoes writers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries who distinguished between "true and false" wit and humor. One writer argued in 1787 that "wit ... is intimately connected with morality," going on to list which strokes of wit-what the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries would call practical joking-were not amusing. "Stealing a blind man's dog, has been mentioned as vastly funny and monstrous clever-but for funny I read wicked, and for clever I read cruel." He felt the same when a young man "who had diverted the company with many very witty feats and sayings, at last, by way of a capital stroke, threw a quart bottle, just emptied of wine, at my head." Good humor provides harmless amusement and has a salutary effect, but false or bad wit is linked to delinquency, damage to property, and physical violence. This view supports theories positing that laughter offers release from social and psychological constraints. It also supports theories that link humor at someone else's expense to a need to assert social superiority. The difference between harmless and harmful buffoonery is one of degree. The later nineteenth century would face the problem of enforcing the distinction as moral reformers codified behavior among the emerging middle classes, whose sense of self depended on ideals of moderation and self-restraint.
Cook, who saw himself as a reformer, would use his position to tame and punish those who crossed the line. He wanted to inspire a new era of vigorous, original, and uplifting artistic production, along with public interest in art that he hoped would cut across divisions of class. That was why he had argued so vehemently in the 1850s that art criticism should be the province not only of specialized art journals but also of the newspapers, where general-interest readers might learn from it how to enjoy art's "blessings." "If the Fine Arts were once fairly treated in this country, if every newspaper and every public journal would do its whole duty liberally and cheerfully toward them, considering their culture in our midst as important as the chronicle of accidents and murders with which their columns are daily filled," Cook argued, "we should soon see a happy change in the manners and domestic life of our people." But some, like Beard, felt that Cook's criticism was more damaging than inspiring. When Cook wrote in the Tribune that Beard's March of Silenus was "unclean" and that his work "defiled the walls of ... public exhibitions," the artist responded quickly in a public letter, which the Tribune published in May 1864 (Fig. 3). Although Cook hoped Beard might be "afraid and ashamed to paint such loathly things any more," the artist defended the painting as "a satire" employing animals to "exhibit ... the ... beastly vices of man." In Beard's view, Cook had missed the point and threatened to ruin the artist's reputation by attacking his moral character.
Homer would have encountered this debate if he read the journal that published his own illustrations, Harper's Weekly. There, George William Curtis attempted to mediate between the two parties. Curtis supported Beard by conceding that the work was "not without a startling strain of Rabelaisque satire and warning." But he also defended Cook's right to state his views and belittled the artist's reaction as immature. This extended exchange, spilling over from the Tribune to Harper's Weekly, reads like a cautionary tale about the risks of humorous expression in a period when art critics were renegotiating what American painting should be. Concerns about humor's place in painting would escalate after the war, as cultural leaders in the reunited country worked to assert its maturity, especially in the realm of the "high" arts.
If by the 1890s jocularity was seen as a "plague" spreading through American culture, critics much earlier pleaded for seriousness. "The stupidest book in the world is a book of jokes, and the stupidest man in the world is one who surrenders himself to the single purpose of making men laugh," Josiah Holland, the writer, lyceum speaker and co-founder of Scribner's, argued in 1872 in "Triflers on the Platform," a critique of the new breed of professional humorous lecturers. "It is a purpose that wholly demoralizes and degrades him." Holland was particularly inflamed because in the 1870s the platform "Drollerists" no longer attracted merely a "low crowd of men and boys as coarse and frivolous as themselves" but came into contact with "the better part of society." This was one indication of the broader market for humor during the second half of the nineteenth century and its permeation of varied spheres of American experience. Holland had no patience for this thundering jocularity that failed to respect the boundary lines of polite society. The "professional jesters," the writer concluded, as if to enlist his readers in enforcing that boundary, "ought not to be tolerated by any man ... interested in the elevation and purification of the public taste." This movement to contain levity and its coarser variant jocularity-to keep them from undermining efforts to elevate public taste-begins in earnest with Cook's censure of Brown and Beard.
It is impossible to know what Homer might have made of these emerging restrictions on "the humorous in art," what shape it should and should not take. We do know, however, that he was well versed in a range of comic strategies and that his graphic work from this period relied heavily on caricature, racial stereotype, punning, and slapstick. In Our Jolly Cook a grotesquely stereotyped black figure dances in convulsive merriment; in other works soldiers fall off horses or are tossed up in the air by amused comrades, as if the war were merely a game. The artist's new medium, oil painting, which had significantly higher stakes, inspired a more complex investigation, inflected by ambition and an awareness of painting's limits and possibilities. "Throughout his life Homer understood the difference between the mediums of art," the art historian Nicolai Cikovsky Jr. has argued, "in the sense of what was expressively appropriate to them, what meanings each could best convey."
Painterly Control in Playing Old Soldier
Homer investigates the possibilities of weaving levity into ambitious painting in his early depictions of life in the Union army camps. In so doing, however, he shuts down levity to the point of nearly extinguishing it, thus exploring a kind of humor that is subtler than that in Beard's or Brown's work and closer to that of the platform comedians. The structural dynamics of Playing Old Soldier (1863) reveal how this works (see Plate 1).
The painting depicts a young soldier pretending to be sick-"playing old soldier," in the slang of the 1860s-to get out of duty. Because the "appearance of the tongue" was a "standard criterion of condition," men pretending to be sick commonly coated their tongues with licorice and coffee (producing the "brown tongue of typhoid fever") or other substances that produced a sickly whitish film. Essays in medical journals addressed the phenomenon of "malingerers" with stern seriousness, sympathizing with the surgeon who had to sort the truly ill from those who lied in presenting their symptoms. To expose the lie, surgeons might force the shirker into absurd and dangerous situations, putting a man faking blindness on a precipice, for example, or monitoring his heart rate as he receives some terrible news to judge whether he is actually not deaf as he has pretended. It became a challenge to see who would outsmart whom, and both surgeons and shirkers became ever more creative in their efforts. "These malingerers are often very ingenious," according to "Rough Notes of an Army Surgeon's Experience, during the Great Rebellion," published in 1863. "They understand very well what diseases can be 'played,' (as they term it,) and what cannot." One man, against all the odds, "played" insanity-instead of something a bit easier, like rheumatism, for example; he sat for hours in camp "with a pole, and [imagined] himself fishing." The ruse worked: "He was at length discharged, and when leaving his camp, one of his old company said to him: 'Bill, what did you make such a d--d fool of yourself as to sit out in the sun all day pretending to be fishing.' Pulling out his discharge papers he replied, with a quiet smile, 'I was fishing for these papers.'" Although attempts to evade duty were a serious problem, they also had comic potential. The malingerer was accordingly a popular subject of the humorous anecdote, poem, and satirical sketch.
Homer's painting, dedicated to such a malingerer, seems meant to be funny-this was Homer looking at the "laughing side" of the conflict. The title alone would suggest this. But the painting is also visually connected to a tradition of humorous medical imagery, such as seventeenth-century Dutch tooth-pulling scenes, where the open mouth, twisted in pain, is pictured as an inherently interesting and amusing subject, with figures smiling and leaning in for a better view. Playing Old Soldier, with its open-mouthed figure, is part of this tradition, but not quite. The painting is not exactly funny. The man's doleful expression-that of a figure whose "whole appearance," one critic wrote, "denotes an entire willingness to be considered ill"-is calculated to elicit pity. His slumping shoulders convey a striking heaviness that reinforces the gravity of his expression.
Homer's painting alludes to this tradition of visual humor, then, but it does not cue the viewer's response with figures like those the Dutch genre painter often employs, who laugh and sometimes point to the locus of humor in the work. Homer's painting omits these "laughing prompts" and guides viewers more subtly to the man's open mouth. Note the surgeon's line of sight and outstretched arm; the thin branch above and to the left of the soldier's head that leads diagonally to the area around his mouth; and the ledger held by the standing recorder, the cover of which falls loosely to the level of the seated soldier's upper lip. The focus on the tongue, not customarily revealed in public, might have seemed transgressive in different circumstances-in oil painting, as the Cook-Beard-Curtis exchange suggests, and also in life. At a time when etiquette books advised middle-class readers not to spit, smoke, yawn, cough, sneeze, laugh too loud, or register any strong emotion on their faces, sticking out one's tongue signaled at best a lack of decorum and at worst a more troubling loss of control. Neither offense, however, seems at issue here, where the narrative of medical examination normalizes the gesture and diffuses its potential vulgarity.
Homer's painting, then, tempers the excess of this kind physical humor. Although one period critic said that the tongue was "thrust" out of the figure's mouth, its precise position, quite controlled, answers both the surgeon's command to show it and the logic of the man's own disconsolate look. This was not the case in 1864, when Homer translated the composition to a lithographic card for the Prang series Life in Camp (Fig. 4). If the title of the card, "Surgeon's Call," seems to distance it from the comic connotations of the painting's title, the figures are marked by distortion and caricature. The seated man has sunken cheeks and bulging eyes, while the man behind him, awaiting his turn with the surgeon, has a cheek swelled up like a balloon. A similar exaggeration characterizes "Hard Tack," another Life in Camp card with a seated open-mouthed figure. Here an outsize head sits atop a diminutive body almost overwhelmed by a monstrously big cracker (Fig. 5). In Playing Old Soldier this rhetoric is muted, managed. The soldier there is, after all, an obedient figure, pinned down and hemmed in by his examiners. Homer concentrates or qualifies in the painting the exaggerated energies of the period's popular humor that he uses in the Prang cards, reducing them to the controlled, protruding tongue.
But "reducing" seems not quite right here because, if anything, Homer's concentration on the tongue makes for greater intensity. The tongue is doubled in form and color by the red flag that dangles from a branch just above the soldier's head to mark the surgeon's lean-to. This formal rhyme acts like an exclamation point, insisting that we recognize the disruptive gesture of the tongue. Even as the soldier obeys the surgeon's command to stick out his tongue, he can't help sticking out his tongue. That is, the gesture must be read as both compliant and defiant, bringing the figure in line with the tallest boy in an almanac illustration who responds to his instructor's quiz by sticking out his tongue (Fig. 6). In this image, from Twenty-Five Cents Worth of Nonsense; Or, The Treasure Box of Unconsidered Trifles, published in the 1850s, the expressions of the misbehaving students vary, with some distorted into funny faces. The tallest boy sums up the attitude of the group; with his tongue sticking out, he cannot respond to his teacher's questions and stands for the group's unwillingness to play by the old man's rules. (They respond to his questions with absurd answers, each rhyming with the one before.) One set of eyes is averted in each of these images: the eyes of the wizened instructor, which look down at his lesson, giving the boy a chance to express his true feelings without fear of recrimination, and the eyes of the soldier in Homer's work, which, instead of connecting directly with the diagnostic gaze, stare impassively into the distance.
Passive aggression is the operative concept here: it was in the 1860s, as it is now, a key feature of much humor with a critical edge. If, as Charles Schutz has argued, "all humor [is] a form of social communication [that] is confused and duplicitous," it is "the concealed meanings in humor [that] permit it to express criticism and hostility." If the pathos of the soldier elicits sympathy as he slumps over-literally looked down on, even weighed down by, that high horizon line-his tongue is a pithy summary of the rebellious spirit of his ruse, his attempt to get out from under the watchful eye of the authority figure while seeming to play by the rules. The ambiguity of his gesture gives it a critical edge. Homer's figure represents humor that is serious and subtle, passive but also aggressive.
This figure is closely related to the man from In Front of the Guard-House (also known as Punishment for Intoxication), who is made to balance on an upended box while shouldering a plank of wood, like a circus animal (Fig. 7). "Nothing new," said one period critic of this work when it was exhibited at the National Academy of Design in New York in 1864, reinforcing the link between it and earlier works structured on the same premise. Kept in line by an armed guard and made a spectacle, the man, like Homer's seated soldier, is a pitiable figure. But he too enacts his own quiet retort. Carrying his wooden plank in place of a gun, the insubordinate soldier mocks the armed guard assigned to him. Period writers recognized this. The picture, said a critic writing in the New-York Times, "represents a soldier doing ignominious penance on the top of a wine box with a rail across his shoulder for a musket." The writer for the New-York Illustrated News suggested how the man mocks the guard: "Standing upon a box, the better to observe the movements of his well-instructed comrade, he imitates them with a log of wood placed in his hands instead of a musket." Elevated on a makeshift pedestal and isolated against the sky, he strikes an ironically heroic sculptural pose as he looks down on the faceless guard-that "well-instructed comrade"-pacing before him.
With this work in view, elements of Playing Old Soldier take on greater significance. The figure on the right in each composition embodies order, in measured steps or in the recording of words on a page. If the orderly's note taking in Playing Old Soldier bespeaks order-a willingness to fall in line, to fit the expression of the individual into a broader regimental scheme-the soldier playing sick represents a subtle disorder. Challenging the authority figure to incorporate him into the organization of war, he signifies disruption. In a class of otherwise dedicated students who, in a contemporaneous print depicting Yankee volunteers, find enjoyment in the duty they are expected to perform-all smiles as they march behind their gallant officer to the rhythm of a drum-he is the camp crank, the misbehaving clown (Fig. 8).
Homer's Yankee-the regiment is the Sixty-First New York-is not a joiner. He is a rebellious figure who must be reckoned with, but he is also immature, just a boy. He has the air of a child still waiting to grow into his body. His trousers billow out above thin ankles, exaggerating the size of his feet. This affect of childlike impotence is amplified by the limp hat in the boy's hands, a displaced manifestation, perhaps, of the genitals those hands so decorously cover. This is a figure who has deheroized himself to make himself appear unfit for duty. He views himself as expendable (they can go on without him) but also as irreplaceable (he's trying to protect his life). The work thus imagines the iconoclast as both impotent and anarchic, a character who at once admits to his own position as an outsider-his ultimate powerlessness or irrelevance-and exhibits a desire to subvert received models of thinking and behavioral codes.
War and Disillusionment
Pictures like Playing Old Soldier and In Front of the Guard-House stand at a critical distance from the popular fiction that "all soldiers were brave, that battle was glorious, that battlefield death was heroic-that war, in short, was intrinsically noble." They also speak to the overturning of conventional hierarchies as a result of war and chart a prehistory of alienated, equivocating soldiers depicted later in popular culture, from Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage (1895) to Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961) to the film and television series MASH. If in the twentieth century the gap between the costs of war and its meager rewards was viewed ironically, as the historian Paul Fussell has suggested, soldiers in the American Civil War also felt the disparity. After the losses the Union sustained at Fredericksburg in 1862, Oliver Wendell Holmes "pretty much made up [his] mind that the South [had] achieved their independence." When the Union lost the battle at Chancellorsville, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts despaired in the spring of 1863, "Lost, lost, all is lost." Hopelessness drifted on the winds of battle. The Confederate General Frank Paxton wrote in a black moment, "Our victories ... seem to settle nothing." A dark humor emerged from this atmosphere of defeat, as in Alfred R. Waud's sketch depicting a drinking party with Death, scythe in hand, biding his time.
Hopelessness and the gap between idealism and the reality of serving in the war became evident in the reaction against conscription that began in 1862, and also in the frequent discussions in comic journals like Vanity Fair of "skedaddling," or evading duty. An essay entitled "Weak Knees" from August 23, 1862, describes the desire to escape conscription as a mania that "fortunately ... only a few [thousand]" citizens suffer from. The poem "Soldier on Leave" in the August 9, 1862, issue, satirizes feigning illness to escape duty once a soldier is drafted: "Though I'm sick, I look well," the "coward" affirms. "The Surgeon's my brother, he'll do aught for me-He says I am troubled with Debili-ty." Such satires were meant to incite ridicule and shame. They also reveal the change in mood as the war dragged on and the North's able-bodied men turned away from the ideals that had initially made so many want to fight. The New York draft riots of July 1863 were perhaps the bloodiest manifestation of this sentiment.
Soldiers began to see the ceremony, regimentation, and costume of the war ironically. One soldier noted how his uniform made him good-looking but also marked him as a target for the enemy. Soldiers also pointed out the absurdity of following orders. When on the march, they were expected to stay in line on all terrain, so that "while one part would be marching on the smooth surface of the ground, another part might be climbing a fence or wading a brook." Men were beginning to recognize that conventions of soldierly behavior and dress had been designed, not necessarily for their needs, but according to martial codes that seemed outdated. Some began to question the mechanics of war, as the central character of Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage would three decades later, torn between duty and a nagging inner logic that tells him his officers are buffoons and the war a sham. Disenchantment had set in. If the physical body was required to serve, the mind-as the often unfocused eyes of Homer's soldiers so powerfully suggest-could remove itself to a critical distance as a means of survival. This decision to exist outside one's social requirements attends the modern experience, whether in war or in cultural or commercial exchange. Like the protagonist of Herman Melville's short story "Bartleby the Scrivener" (1853), who responds to his boss's demands with a passive-aggressive "I would prefer not to," Homer's noncompliant tricksters are figures of modernity.
The humorist traditionally plays the role of noncompliant in modern society, an idea Homer's paintings seem to acknowledge. Like the protagonist in both Playing Old Soldier and In Front of the Guard-House, the humorist typically presents himself as a marginal figure whose foibles members of the audience are invited to look down on, reinforcing their own social superiority. This technique was crucial to the routines of Artemus Ward, who, beginning with his first lecture tour of 1861-62-with stops in New York City; Madison, Wisconsin; and various points between-perfected the art of "well-feigned confusion" and apparent "embarrassment." The disobedient figures of Homer's paintings appear ridiculous in much the same way-humiliated, though each maintains a measure of subversive authority. The marginality of the humorist gives him license to deviate from norms and speak openly, as others cannot, about his culture's most deeply felt ideological assumptions. He is the "counter-cultural spokesman," the observer speaking a "universally recognized but politically taboo" truth. Just as Shakespeare made use of such figures-his fools offering critique and commentary on the central action of the play-so did the precursors of our stand-up comedians, the Civil War humorists, who moved from newsprint to the stage in these years. These humorists-including not only Ward, but also Petroleum V. Nasby (the searingly racist character created by David Ross Locke), Orpheus C. Kerr (Robert Henry Newell), and Bill Arp (Charles H. Smith) in the South-provided "a means of registering dissatisfaction with the war," exposing "failures in the war effort," and making "the profoundly subversive point that war was ridiculous."
As a "special artist" during the war, Homer occupied a similar position of privileged but marginal outsider. Harper's Weekly, like the other illustrated journals published during the war, made much of the heroic efforts of its artists to tell the war's story,
with their pencils in the field, upon their knees, upon a knapsack, upon a bulwark, upon a drum-head, upon a block, upon a canteen, upon a wet deck, in the gray dawn, in the dusk twilight, with freezing or fevered fingers; upon horseback, in ambulances, under a shed, in a tent; under the sky, in snow and rain and sunshine; from the bough of a tree through which the bullets sang; from a corner of the deck over which the shells whistled and crashed; in the glow of victory, in the rage of defeat.
But other writers questioned the artist's utility while so many other young men were fighting. Artists who had been sent out into the field to report back to the Crayon, for example, were giving up the "indulgence" of painting for fighting. In the pages of Vanity Fair, the "special artist" was portrayed as a figure cozy in a private drawing room, sketching toy soldiers, far removed from the sites of battle. The manhood of the figure, nattily attired and playing with war toys as he sketches, is called into question. In an illustration celebrating the reach and impact of "News from the War," Homer suggests the artist's diminished status by depicting his artist precariously on a barrel, sketching on his knee-seated and dwarfed by two giant soldiers standing at attention. The artist's thin pen or pencil contrasts pathetically with the long bayonets of the soldiers he sketches. In the course of his life, Homer would be drawn to those relegated to the margins of a community-such as African Americans, children, and laborers-and this concern with the outsider position began early in his career.
Homer spent most of his time in this period establishing himself in New York and taking practical steps to become a painter. He had begun his illustrative work in Boston in the mid-1850s with the lithographer John H. Bufford, but he soon became dissatisfied with the "treadmill existence" of commercial work. When he left Boston for New York in 1859, he began freelance work for Harper's Weekly instead of accepting the full-time position he was offered. His apprenticeship in Boston, he later recalled, was "too fresh in my recollection to let me care to bind myself again." He received instruction in painting from Frederic Rondel beginning in 1861, and probably by early summer of the following year, he had set up a studio in the New York University building, where he would paint alongside artists such as Eastman Johnson. By 1863 he had begun to spend less time illustrating. In 1860 he had published some twenty-three illustrations in the popular press; in 1863, just eight; in 1864, three; in 1865, seven; and in 1866, two. At this point, "Homer may have thought he had left illustration work behind him." Some critics were indeed beginning to write of him explicitly as a painter: "Few if any of our young painters have displayed in their first works so much that belongs to the painter as Mr. Homer," a critic wrote on viewing In Front of the Guard-House and The Brierwood Pipe, which Homer exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1864. "His pictures indicate a hand formed to use the brush." His superiors at the National Academy of Design seemed to agree: in 1865, after the exhibition of The Bright Side, Pitching Quoits, and The Initials, this mostly self-taught artist was elected an academician. In 1867 he would be chosen to represent the United States at the Universal Exposition in Paris, where he was acclaimed by the critics. But in the early 1860s, as the period reviews make clear, he was still learning, still "very young in the profession," some said "almost a beginner," producing what were understood as "immature" efforts.
The Visual Joke Revised
Homer's immature soldier might be seen as an apt representative of the young artist who depended on more established members of the New York art world to judge (like the surgeon in his painting) his expressions. That soldier is, after all, a painter himself, having coated his tongue to pull one over on his superiors. We may even be tempted to read Homer's soldier as a comedian, a figure who in the classic stand-up comedy formula voices a common complaint or critique that without his utterance would go unspoken. But if the tongue at the painting's center-the gag, framed by straight men-is its punch line, we have to ask precisely what it means. Punch lines generally derive their power from their brevity and clarity, and on those grounds this one fails. We, outside the painting, have a view of the whole and not merely the close-up perspective of the surgeon or the more distanced position of the orderly, who focuses not on the soldier's tongue but on the transcript of the consultation he is noting down. But we achieve no greater understanding from our place outside the canvas. Like the surgeon, the viewer leans in to scrutinize the soldier's tongue, questioning whether it signals sickness. But no hard-and-fast conclusion can be drawn.
Homer's painting The Bright Side (1865) contains a related instance of the inscrutable or incomprehensible punch line (Plate 2). The humor of the painting depends both on the wordplay of the title and on some well-inscribed visual tropes: in the formal rhyme between the lounging muleteers in the foreground and the mules in the background, the work makes the familiar antebellum equation between the African American and laziness, best represented perhaps by Mount's Farmers Nooning (1836) or James Goodwyn Clonney's Waking Up (1851). The critic for Watson's Weekly Art Journal seems to have recognized the joke: "The lazy sunlight, the lazy, nodding donkeys, the lazy, lolling negroes," he writes, spelling out the discursive chain that structures the work, "make a humorously conceived and truthfully executed picture." But some critics located the work's humor elsewhere, in the "comic old darkey with the pipe, poking his head through the tent-opening." This figure, whose assertive, appraising look at the viewer one critic misread as "grinning," seemed to period writers the punch line for the painting's joke about blackness and laziness-a cue to the laughter that, to nineteenth-century Americans steeped in the imagery of minstrelsy, seemed a natural response to African American characters. But this punch line, if we can call it that, counters the stereotype that informs the rest of the composition and might therefore be seen to turn the joke on its head. "Homer's muleteer is the defiantly aware center of the canvas," Marc Simpson writes. "He challenges the viewer to respond, but provides no clues as to what the nature of that response should be." This figure, with his inscrutable expression, complicates the easy joke, calling into question the familiar elision between black man and animal. The man's forthright stare may be unsettling-as it surely was to those viewers who recast it as a familiar smile-but that is how the "emblem of incomprehensibility" works, according to the philosopher Ted Cohen. The inscrutable or incomprehensible detail, woven into the fabric of the joke, invites deeper consideration and may promote a change of view.
Even as Homer engaged in visual stereotyping, he often asked viewers to rethink stereotypes when considering the social position and subjectivity of African Americans, as the historian Peter H. Wood has shown of paintings like Near Andersonville (1865-66), which depicts an African American woman standing on the threshold of her Georgia home as Union soldiers are marched to captivity by Confederates in the distance (Fig. 9). The painting explores the trauma of both the war and slavery and asks the viewer to ponder the uncertain future of the war's many victims. By treating this woman sympathetically, Homer unsettles the rhetoric of popular cartoons featuring incredulous and stupefied Southern mammy types. In The Bright Side, he performs a related maneuver, but he calls into question the racist ideology informing such imagery with an ambitious form of visual deadpan that keeps humor in play instead of pushing it aside.
Like The Bright Side, Playing Old Soldier is a metacritical work that focuses on the mechanics of joke telling and draws attention to the complexities of visualizing humor, a fleeting mode of expression. "You had to be there," we say when telling a funny story that fails to translate the humor of the original moment. Platform comedians like Ward exploited the awkwardness of this situation and used it to elicit a laugh. Telling his long-winded tales in a flat, deadpan manner, Ward amused audiences precisely because he seemed unaware of his own comedic effect. At times he played the nervous naïf so well and spoke with such quiet gravity that members of the audience believed him. One critic describes members of the audience at one of Ward's lectures who "would not, or perhaps could not see the point of his jokes, and who looked as if they thought they had been swindled out of their entrance money." Another critic tells how a crowd gathered around Ward, after his "Babes in the Wood" talk, to "express sympathy for the nervousness through which, as they supposed, he had failed to say anything at all about the Babes in the Wood."
Mark Twain modeled his own delivery on Ward's. If audiences during Twain's late 1860s lecture tour were "at first fooled ... into believing they were in for a boring evening" because of "the slow, drawling speech, the dry humor, and the dead-pan face," their "awakening from this error," the Indianapolis Journal reported in 1869, "[came] so suddenly, so thoroughly and pleasantly too, that from this point on to the close of the lecture, the doubter at first, is a willing and delighted captive, drinking in every word." Deadpan was risky but, when it succeeded, Twain felt it was high art. He formulated this argument as a methodology in 1895. The humorous story was "told gravely," with the teller doing his best "to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it." The listener had to be alert, because the teller often drops the "nub"-the punch line-"in a carefully casual and indifferent way, with the pretence that he does not know it is a nub." Ward, for example, "would begin to tell with great animation something which he seemed to think was wonderful; then lose confidence, and after an apparently absent-minded pause add an incongruous remark in a soliloquizing way; and that was the remark intended to explode the mine-and it did." He "could get laughs out of nothing," Marshall P. Wilder wrote in the foreword to his 1911 collection of American humor, "by mixing the absurd and the unexpected, and then backing the combination with a solemn face and earnest manner." Ward's deadpan method was a critical development in American humor and it seems, in some way, the antidote to the taint of exaggeration and self-indulgence that plagued definitions of American humor from the 1860s to the end of the century. If the content of his jokes could be crude or coarse, his manner in telling them was careful and refined. Humor resided in this bristling contrast between content and form. The humorous story that exploited incongruities or subverted expectations to a high point of refinement was, Twain said, "strictly a work of art,-high and delicate art,-and only an artist can tell it."
Twain's essay on his method dates from the mid-1890s, when some writers were beginning to see it as outdated. Twain's meandering jokes had come to seem long-winded relics of a slow-paced era as anonymous joke writers developed a new style that prized brevity. Ward suffered the same critique by the end of the century. One writer in the 1890s claimed that even in his own day Ward was "belated." The grotesque exaggeration of Ward's tortured spelling and feigned naïveté made it difficult for the critic to see the sophistication of the comedian's deadpan approach. He misses the oscillation in Ward's humor between levity and gravity and the seriousness of its cultural critiques-he misses, in short, the subtlety of Ward's grave comic style.
That is the humor of Playing Old Soldier, a nuanced deadpan easily missed or even misinterpreted. The orderly's note taking in the painting reads like a parody of someone's recording such a joke (especially the joke told orally), as if its spark could be maintained in the translation. "No quality is more evanescent and volatile than the essence of a joke," the author of "A Plea for Seriousness" argued in 1892 in the Atlantic Monthly. "It often evaporates while taking the form of words, and can be told only by a glance or gesture." Humor, always "ephemeral," could quickly become obsolete. If, as Howells suggested, "all fashions change, and nothing more wholly and quickly than the fashion of fun," if "what amused people in the last generation," which came of age before the war, struck Howells as "terrible," recording it would be pointless. The joke would be dead even before it was caught by pen or brush.
Homer's painting may question the staying power-perhaps even the very idea-of visual humor, critiquing the achievement of antebellum humorists like Mount and David Claypoole Johnston, who defined the look of what had been a golden age of American comic expression. Although Mount's work was subject to multiple readings, depending on viewers' familiarity with the colloquialisms to which he alluded, the artist nonetheless tried to ensure that his jokes were legible to the majority. The signposting of Cider Making, where every object alludes to a political issue, bears this out. Johnston's work is heavier handed. Humor in his painting Sound Asleep or Wide Awake (1845-55), for example, is presented as visually translatable, even as the work produces a charged commentary on complex class and art world dynamics (Fig. 10). There is the stereotypically simian profile of the sleeping figure to tell us he's Irish, the brick in the hat (a period slang phrase) to tell us he's drunk, and the broadside at far right (faintly reading "used up," "bamboozled," and "sleeping beauty") that serves as a caption for the central action, the practical joke. The laughing figure behind the box-a laughing prompt-works with all the other prompts to ensure that the viewer responds by laughing with the man who laughs at the victimized vagrant. This is the "semantic prattle" that Roland Barthes suggests is "typical of the archaic-or infantile-era of modern discourse, marked by the excessive fear of failing to communicate meaning." Iconographic and textual pointers direct interpretation excessively so that the joke is impossible to miss.
The humor of mid-nineteenth-century genre painting can be lost to us if we lack a key to its iconographic and colloquial nuances. In the 1860s, however, genre painting was "rapidly rising into favor" and praised for its clarity and the "intelligibility of its motives," as the art critic and collector James Jackson Jarves put it. "He that looks may understand," Jarves maintained. Humorous genre painting continued unabated through the war; Brown, for example, did extremely well into the late nineteenth century with his merry street urchin pictures. Homer's imagery calls attention to the structural principles of this work, aligning him with the platform comedians who played the content of their jokes against their manner of telling them. Indeed, Playing Old Soldier has a staged quality, with its spotlighted central figure, its proscenium-like foreground, and its lean-to as backdrop, with the blanket at far left arranged like a curtain pulled back to reveal the show. The theatrics of popular comic imagery-overdone gestures, direct address to the viewer, textual cues, and laughing prompts-have been diluted into a few key compositional markers, transmuted into structure. In his early experimental works like Playing Old Soldier, Homer thus disrupts the familiar idioms to reveal their basic armature.
Homer's contemporary Édouard Manet engaged in parallel experiments in deadpan ambiguity in Paris during these years with Déjeuner sur l'herbe, exhibited at the Salon de Refusés in 1863 (Fig. 11). Homer's work is not nearly as scandalous as this painting, which broke with bourgeois codes of decency both in its technique-the passages of imprecise brushwork and areas of flat, unmodulated color-and its subject matter: a nude woman enjoying the company of two fully clothed men. The art historian Michael Fried has described that central nude's glance out at the viewer in this parodic homage to Titian's Concert champêtre, as a "deadpan though also slightly amused gaze." This, he argues, "definitively forestalls all possibility of compositional closure." Indeed, critics joked that this painting, with its perplexing figures and spatial discontinuities, was a "rebus" or a "riddle." This is very much to the point, for deadpan, as a rule, operates like a riddle. Its strategy is to split the utterance in two and separate signifier from signified: the comedian's tone from what he is saying, for example. This divergence sometimes materializes in painting as form or structure that draws attention to itself and thereby undermines the illusion of mimetic sincerity. This is certainly the case for Manet who, in his painting Olympia (1865), drew attention to the flatness of the painting support by rendering the figure (whose gaze is truly deadpan) starkly flat herself, without the modeling that marked the figure in Titian's Venus of Urbino, on which he riffs. An interest in "flatness" thus informed modernist artistic practice in various ways during the 1860s, and deadpan should be understood as constitutive of this subversive, antiauthoritarian, and formally challenging modernist turn.
Like Manet's imagery, Homer's looked self-critically at painterly protocols and pushed against semantic prattle in favor of more elliptical communication. But Homer's deadpan is not quite Manet's; it is less brazen about its intervention and far more subtle (a strategy that has not perhaps been fully accounted for in the dominant narratives of the period's modernist visual adventures). There are local explanations for this comparative restraint. Homer's work was part of a broader shift in speech that occurred during the war, not only in comedy but also in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, delivered on November 19, 1863. In contrast to the two-hour speech made that day by the orator Edward Everett, which glides from the specifics of the battle at Gettysburg to the society of ancient Greece, from statistics and critical data to anecdotes that seem off topic, Lincoln famously spoke for just three minutes. That economy of language marked a shift occurring precisely in 1863, during a war that, it now seemed, would only be vulgarized by more words, more description. The literary scholar Peter Coviello, in his introduction to Walt Whitman's Memoranda during the War, argues that the text is suffused with "understatement," in part because the task of describing the war was so "daunting." This quiet economy of Whitman's and Lincoln's language in their treatment of the war made each word count more. Where Everett depended on flights into metaphor and grandiose language, Lincoln depended more on rhetorical structure to communicate his message: the repetition of words or phrases that pushes clipped clauses forward to make a case that seems both urgent and "natural." Lincoln's speech, according to the historian Garry Wills, "[anticipated] the shift to vernacular rhythms that Mark Twain would complete twenty years later" and made Everett's oration obsolete in a manner of minutes. The ornate and grandiose became passé and artificial as Lincoln redefined oratorical eloquence.
Painting as Investigation
Playing Old Soldier exemplifies how the same shift occurred at this time in painting. The work was promoted, when it was exhibited, as a species of the new naturalism that brought the ugly into play, breaking through the stodgy and idealizing gloss that defined the American model of academic painting, as guided and promoted by Daniel Huntington, then president of the National Academy of Design. Full of admiration for the old European masters and a sense of Christian charity that inspired didactic religious imagery and forgiving portraits of U.S. presidents and other luminaries, Huntington profoundly influenced the New York art world, even as new trends began to erupt in the mid-1860s. Cook-the critic who lambasted Brown and Beard and co-founded the Association for the Advancement of Truth in Art and its publication, the New Path-led the charge to oust the old guard Huntington represented. "In the world of art in our day ... we are in the midst of a great revolution," he declared: "The old order changeth." Conservative in his way, Cook nevertheless started "a successful offensive against" what he perceived as "the conservative forces in American art." In Emanuel Leutze's mammoth history painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware, exhibited at the Metropolitan Fair in New York in the spring of 1864, Cook saw "a striking representative of the school that is dying out." He similarly placed the work of Huntington in "a past age, and a dead system; an age whose spirit will never return; a system that can never again be revivified." The work of these artists was "vapid ... utterly without life, or energy, or spirit of any kind." And it was up to the new artists on the scene, "nearly all young men" who, "not hampered by too many traditions," would "turn their backs deliberately ... upon the rubbish of the past" and "inaugurate the new day." Following only nature as a guide, these new men would produce, Cook hoped, something fresh, "more real and smacking of the time."
When Homer's Playing Old Soldier and The Sutler's Tent were shown at the Artists' Fund Society in New York in November 1863, the New Path made Homer stand for its most deeply felt convictions about the new painting. "Mr. Homer is the first of our artists who has endeavored to tell us any truth about the war." Although "he has looked only on the laughing or the sentimental side ... what he has tried to tell us has been said simply, honestly, and with such homely truth as would have given his pictures a historical value quite apart from their artistic merit." But as a naturalistic, descriptive painting, Playing Old Soldier is vague and imprecise. The paint is almost uniformly muddy, with the burnt oranges and browns of the dirt in the foreground spread throughout the composition, in the sky and the flesh of the figures as well as the wood supports of the lean-to. Their faces are overworked and labored, with heavy layers of paint occluding any sense of volume or specificity in the surgeon's face, for example. His arm, resting on the seated man's shoulder, disappears behind that figure's back, awkwardly hand-less. These ungainly moments in the painting's surface are surely due in part to Homer's inexperience, but they support the interpretation of painting that the work otherwise proposes in its exploration of and near disavowal of levity. Clumsy and imprecise, the work records the fleeting-the experience of life in camp-but leaves the edges blurred, the details, in, say, the surgeon's generic features or absent hand, unexamined. The whole has an unfinished, sketchy quality about it. "Mr. Homer must aim for completeness and refinement," said one critic when writing of another set of works, In Front of the Guard-House and The Brierwood Pipe. "At present, his work is deficient in both these particulars."
I wonder, however, if particulars were what Homer was after, if he wanted to duplicate in this painting the crispness and detail of his black-and-white imagery. The work takes all that is not graphic, not linear about the medium of paint and makes it signify a position. If the affect of humor is most commonly to be dashed off-particularly in its most popular forms in the 1860s, the rough and quick caricature, the dialect storyteller's seemingly off-the-cuff remarks-making the humorous event lasting, durable, by committing layers of paint to it goes against the grain. Much later, in 1892, the author of "A Plea for Seriousness" made this point, quoting a British politician and poet who said, "A wise man might talk folly like this by his fireside, but that any human being, having made such a joke, should write it down, copy it out, transmit it to the printer, correct the proof, and send it forth to the world is enough to make us ashamed of our species." The author of this piece would like to see his fellow man commit such labor to more serious forms of literature. But the statement also suggests the perverseness of treating the joke in this considered way, making it endure. "No quality is more evanescent and volatile than the essence of a joke; it often evaporates while taking the form of words, and can be told only by a glance or gesture."
In Playing Old Soldier Homer invests the enduring medium of oil paint with the quality of fleetingness. For just as the picture offers no clear punch line, it suggests, in its lack of particularity, that the world itself may be untranslatable, undiagnosable. Homer thus puts the nonpictorial to the service of the pictorial, makes a foundational tenet of humor resonate for the art of painting, and posits humor's untranslatable quality, paradoxically, as precisely what a work of art is about. We are not supposed to laugh aloud; Homer's painting is an investigation of the mechanisms of visual joking, an exploration of its limits and possibilities. If the "dramatic power, the tragic possibilities, in Huckleberry Finn attested the author's intention to do something more than to amuse," if the intermingling of levity and gravity gave Twain's work its best chance to "outlive its generation," the same could be said for paintings like Playing Old Soldier. Ironically, because scholars have not studied these works in the context of period debates about humor, Homer's investment in what we might call dramatic levity has been overlooked.
When in 1866 Homer painted Prisoners from the Front-which signaled to critics that he was finally "serious," that he had not, as Cook wrote, "[degenerated] into a mere carricaturist [sic]"-the artist repudiated his earlier interest in levity and its value to ambitious painting (Fig. 12). The work shows rebel soldiers under the firm command of a Union general, who appraises the band as the surgeon had the shirking boy in Playing Old Soldier. If the series of genre paintings that includes Playing Old Soldier was guided by the interplay of levity and gravity, here all is on the level, almost relentlessly in line. Note how the Confederate at far left almost stoops to assume the height of the figures next to him. The Union soldier standing in line with the trio holds his rifle by his side-a contrast to those laid down in the foreground-so that it reaches above the heads of the rebels, dividing him and the appraising brigadier general-Francis Channing Barlow (1834-1896)-from the ragtag band. The work, transmuting the iconoclast who challenged the Union effort during the war into the defeated rebels at the war's end, cancels out the comic counter-utterance. Something besides levity is at issue here, something like the depiction of heroism, of mutual respect between competing sides, of Americans brought again into a unified community. There is also an effort here to make painting into taxonomy, with the three Confederates generalized as the three ages of man yet overburdened with specificity. From right to left we have, as the art critic Eugene Benson described them, the "impudent young Virginian, capable of heroism, because capable of impulse, but incapable of endurance because too ardent to be patient; next to him the poor, bewildered old man, perhaps a spy, with his furtive look, and scarcely able to realize the new order of things about to sweep away the associations of his life; back of him "the poor white," stupid, stolid, helpless, yielding to the magnetism of superior natures and incapable of resisting authority." This is what the Confederate cause looks like, the painting seems to say; these are its faces. That this painting is so often reproduced to illustrate just that demonstrates the power of the work's scheme of classification. But even if the work can justifiably be seen as an artistic triumph, something might also be lost, a different sense of painting that vanished when Homer lost his outsider status, became part of the system himself.
But, then, Homer would never really be part of the system. In the late 1860s and 1870s critics struggling to understand the direction his art was taking cited Prisoners from the Front repeatedly as a moment of greatness now past, a specter of what his work might have become. Homer's manner of rendering the world had become too vague, too sketchy, too "theoretical." "It is a sketch too slight to offer the public, a mere memorandum," Cook argued of Homer's Manchester Coast (1869), now titled Rocky Coast and Gulls (Fig. 13). "If Mr. Homer has adopted the notion that he can put down in any scene in nature, or in any passage of human life, all that is worth recording, in a half-dozen strokes of his brush, he makes a blunder that in some men would deserve to be called conceit." In that eruption of spray at the upper-right corner, which breaks on the rocks into a hundred little patches of white paint, we see hints of the late, great seascapes. Cohering to form the bodies of four seagulls at center, these flits of white dot the foreground like little pebbles or shells on the sand. With this work, Homer moved away from the documentation of facts for which Cook had admired him at the start of his career. "We cannot reconcile ourselves to having an artist of real ability," he wrote, "snuff himself out with a theory in this way. We will hope that he is only suffering from an attack of whim." The artist and critic Theodore Grannis was even harsher. "The dashing of the ocean's spray above the rocks," he wrote, "resembles the work of a boy who has dashed a 'spitball' upon a newly papered wall." An air of disappointment likewise colors reviews of the croquet scenes with which Homer followed up his triumph at the war's end. They were all "very sketchy, rapidly painted in the 'broadest' manner," said a critic in the Nation in 1866, "and we are sorry to see Mr. Homer's work always so slap-dash." This technique would become a dominant trend in painting of the 1870s when the painter had become, like other artists, "an investigator." Prisoners from the Front should be seen as interrupting the theory, which Homer first formulated during his investigation of the principles of visual deadpan, that painting coincided with fleetingness.
Homer's early interest in deadpan reverberates in still other ways in his later paintings. By revising the semantic prattle of the antebellum comic mode, by making it more economical and understated-by, in effect, theorizing the mechanics of visual deadpan as part of the broader shift in communication that occurred during the war-Homer began, in the early 1860s, a procedure he would return to again and again. Consider Artists Sketching in the White Mountains of 1868, which takes as its subject the recording and translation of nature into paint (Fig. 14). The artist depicts himself last in a line of three painters, each busily putting the scene on canvas (the artist's name marks the knapsack in the foreground at left). By the polite spacing and repetition of sunshaded swells, Homer satirizes the effort to offer a unique perspective on this sacred and canonical New Hampshire site, memorialized so many times before by the preceding generation of landscape painters, such as Thomas Cole. Placing a wine bottle on the tree stump to his left, Homer stifles the potential pathos of this Colean detail, makes it an accessory to the leisurely pursuit of art. By mocking his own participation in this deadening artistic practice-Appletons' Journal and Harper's Weekly had sent him to capture the view of the White Mountains-Homer wryly signals that his art will go elsewhere, pursue a less traveled and less predictable path.
This will be the case particularly very late in his career, when he produced some of his most original works. That so many of Homer's late works, such as Fox Hunt (1893) and The Gulf Stream (1899), exhibit a darkening sense of irony reinforces my argument that this sensibility informed Homer's work from the start. What had been nurtured by the tragic circumstances of the Civil War developed during the 1890s into a bitter ironic stance, where man is helpless against the motions of the universe and the Darwinian hierarchies of the species are reversed. If levity and gravity mingle in Homer's early works, gravity wins out at the end of the century. Yet the early and late works can clearly be linked as part of a sustained investigation. That one critic saw The Gulf Stream as infused with "grim humor" suggests the potential rewards of a renewed look at Homer's "sense of the dramatic." The "gags" that best suited Homer's dramatic sensibility were deadpan.
Add source code 13W4795 to get your discount at checkout.
Cannot be combined with any other offers.